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by Dale Tweedie

Why work?

One influential idea, especially in economics, is that we mainly put up with the pain work causes in exchange for wages. On this view, a key task of management is to ensure that workers don’t avoid or ‘shirk’ their tasks.

An opposing view is that working is itself a human ‘good’. For example, in work we might express our abilities or be connected with others. If this is right, management is not necessary to good work in the same way. Indeed, management might sometimes get in the way.

Our research explores which view was most plausible in cleaning work. Cleaners are an important test case because economists would anticipate that they have compelling reasons to ‘shirk’. Their work is arduous and absolutely necessary. Yet in a peculiar paradox, cleaning is lowly paid and socially stigmatized. Barbara Ehrenreich once described cleaners as ‘the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society’.

However, not only did the cleaners we studied not ‘shirk’, they broke management rules that prevented them from doing a good quality job. This commitment to working well under unlikely conditions suggests that influential views about why people work, and about what management does, can be misleading.

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The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.

Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”

The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”

 

I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.

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